Matthew 10:24-39 & Jeremiah 20:7-13
When I was in the process of hearing God’s call upon my life to become an ordained pastor, there were some frightening points in the journey. One of those points came when I made the decision to leave the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and come to the ELCA. What made this scary is that, while I had made the decision in my mind and in my heart that this is what God was calling me towards, I now had to tell my friends and my family what I was going to do. And what I feared most about this was losing those friends and family who would have a problem with women being pastors. I knew that my immediate family would support me: my parents love me, and I think my brother probably was wondering why I hadn’t done this a long time ago. But the conversation that I was most nervous about was the one with my maternal grandmother, who was the wife of a Missouri Synod pastor, and a rather conservative one at that. In the end, that conversation went much better than I expected it to, and after my maternal grandfather died from Alzheimer’s, my grandmother gifted me with his stoles. And most of my friends in the Missouri Synod have stayed friends with me, even if they don’t completely agree with what I am doing. But there was one friend I had who started being actively unsupportive and derogatory of me on Facebook. And finally, I had to cut the bonds that I had with him because of it. And so I resonate with Jesus’ saying that we have in our Gospel reading today: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As much as we like to think of Jesus as someone who loves us and cares for us—and he is all of that and more—Jesus is also someone who has some difficult things to say to us. The life of discipleship is not an easy one, and if we think it is—if we are coming to church just so that we will “look good” to people around us—then we do not understand what following Jesus is truly about. Jesus tells us today that following him will demand much from us. Jesus tells us that following him will divide us from both our family members and those we thought were our friends. And Jesus tells us that we, too, must take up our cross in order to follow him.
I would like to speak more today about what taking up our cross and following Jesus means and doesn’t mean. First of all, we have a saying in our culture about something or someone being “our cross to bear”. Usually what that means is that we have a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance and a drain upon our lives, but with whom we cannot cut our bonds, for whatever reason. I really don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Remember that a cross was a Roman instrument of execution. And not only was it an instrument of execution, it was an instrument of torture—people who were put on the cross could hang there for days in utter agony before they finally died of suffocation or exposure. And not only was the cross an instrument of torture and execution, it was also one of humiliation: the person who was hung on the cross had to carry the instrument of his death through the crowds, to the place of execution, and suffer the jeers of the crowds. Having a neighbor or a family member who is a nuisance or a drain on your life is really nothing in comparison to what the cross was really about.
Secondly, taking up your cross and following Jesus does not mean living in an abusive situation. For too long, pastors have counseled female parishioners who are experiencing abuse from their husbands to stay in that relationship, because the husband is supposedly the wife’s “cross to bear”. I’m going to say right now that this is absolute nonsense. Even though Jesus experienced physical abuse when he took up his cross and died for us, that is not the same kind of abuse as what happens in a marital relationship where things have gone wrong. If any of you in the congregation today are in that kind of relationship, I encourage you to do what you can to get out of it. And please know that I am a safe space, and I will do everything within my ability to help you.
So far, I have spoken about what taking up your cross and following Jesus is not about. It is not about dealing with a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance. It is not about staying in an abusive marital relationship. So what, then, is it about? From the context of the other things that Jesus tells us today, part of what taking up your cross and following Jesus is about is this: when we witness to what Jesus has taught us, and when we live out those teachings in our lives, and when we suffer abuse and misunderstanding for that, then we are getting close to what Jesus meant by taking up the cross and following him. So, what does this look like?
I think this is why, paired with today’s reading from Matthew, we get a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived a long time before Jesus did. But, had he heard Jesus’ teaching, I am sure that he would have agreed with it. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem right before the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 BC. God tasked Jeremiah with telling the king and the people of Jerusalem that the Babylonians would be victorious and the people would be taken into exile. This was, obviously, not a popular message. Jerusalem was where God’s Temple was; it was the place where God, the one God, came down to earth to meet with God’s people. There was no way that God would let the Babylonians conquer God’s city. And there were many false prophets who were soothing the king with words of peace and suggestions to ally themselves with Egypt so that the Babylonians would be defeated. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jeremiah to speak the true word from God that was the exact opposite of what the people wanted to hear and believe? At one point, they threw Jeremiah into a dry well and left him there to die; it was only when a servant in the king’s house pleaded for Jeremiah that he was rescued and pulled up out of the well.
The reading that we have from Jeremiah today gives us a window into how the prophet was feeling about this calling from God. And he was not happy. He loved his country; he loved his people; he did not want this sad duty to tell the people that God was sending them into exile. And yet, he says that when he decided not to speak anymore in God’s name, “then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Even though Jeremiah lived long before Jesus did, this is an example of what taking up the cross and following Jesus looks like: speaking the truth to a world that is not always ready to face up to what it has done wrong, much less one that is willing to fix the injustices that it has created. Taking up the cross and following Jesus means speaking the truth and realizing that, by so doing, we are putting our allegiance to God before our family, and by speaking God’s words, creating a division between us and our families.
As people who follow Jesus, what is that burning fire that is shut up within our bones? And are we weary with holding it in? How is God speaking through us? And are we willing to be divided from family and friends who don’t agree with us, for the sake of speaking necessary words to the world around us? In short, are we ready to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, so that we might find our lives? These kinds of questions will take much study of the Scriptures and much soul searching, and we may not like the answers that we hear from God. They may even spark some genuine fear as we begin to realize what Jesus is calling us to do.
Yet the good news is this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” We have nothing to be afraid of, for God knows who we are. And God loves us so much that he gave up his Son, Jesus, to that torturous and humiliating death on the cross for us. We will never live up to Jesus’ standards for taking up the cross and following him, no matter how hard we try. And that’s okay, because we don’t have to: Jesus has already done it for us.
So, we have nothing to fear. Let us speak the truth that Jesus has given us to say to the world. Let us not hold back, but let us speak up for the poor, for the vulnerable, for good stewardship of the creation which God has given us, and for all of those things which God would have us speak about. This world needs to hear the message that God loves us, that God values each one of us—black, white, Hispanic, Native American, etc.–so much that all of the hairs on our head are counted, that God has given us enough so that all people may have good health and a full life, and that God wants all people to live in peace with one another and to help one another. Such a good message to hear, and yet the world will not always respond well to this message. We may suffer humiliation of various kinds as we bring this message to the world. But this is what taking up the cross and following Jesus means. So, let us be bold and speak out. Amen.